Koh Ker history
For two decades, in the second quarter of the tenth century, Koh Ker instead of Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire. Almost all monuments in the huge temple town - the second largest in Cambodia, second only to Angkor - originate from this short period.
After Angkor had been founded
When the founder of Angkor, Yashovarman I, died about 910 AD, he was succeeded by his son Harshavarman I. Though overwhelmingly praised in inscriptions, he seems to have been a weak ruler and little is known about him. His name means “protected by joy”.
On the death of Harshavarman I, who remained childless, his brother Ishanavarman II succeeded as his rightful heir in 922, but not without being challenged by a maternal uncle of the two brothers, namely the local ruler in Koh Ker who later became King Jayavarman IV. His chief queen was Jayadevi, a younger sister of Yashovarman.
Building programme in Koh Ker
Koh Ker, those days called Chok Gargyar “island of glory”, seems to have been his personal domain before he became king. He already started to build his own capital here in 921 and he began to perform kingly action, such as building a reservoir and beginning work on the hitherto tallest Khmer temple pyramid for an imperial Linga, already during the period of Ishanavarman’s II rule in Angkor. This weak king in Angkor seems to have reigned until 928.
The erection of the largest Shiva Linga on top of the tallest temple pyramid hitherto built in the Khmer empire clearly indicates the claim to supreme power by this local ruler, though he formally was a kind of vassal of the king of Angkor.
One of the inscription found at Prasat Thom, dated 921 and in Sanskrit, reports the erection of the god Tribhuvanshvara. Another, of the same date but in Khmer, mentions donations to the Devaraja (kamrateng jagat ta raja), the highest god and protector of royal power (by many scholars even identified with a god-king as its human form). Altogether 3 inscriptions of Jayavarman IV boasted that this construction surpassed those of previous kings.
Koh Ker’s ruler becomes King Jayavarman IV
On the death of Ishanavarman II, who remained childless, too, the throne finally passed to this ruler of Koh Ker who became King Jayavarman IV now. It is not known how the succession came about. Obviously Jayavarman had already been the most powerful figure in the Khmer empire for years. But it is not completely clear that Jayavarman IV has to be called a “usurpor”, someone only claiming power by outright military force, since matrilineal lineage traditionally played an important role in the line of succession in Khmer and other Southeastasian kingdoms, though this alone was certainly not cause enough to prove his right the supreme throne.
Koh Ker becomes capital of the Khmer empire
Soon after his coronation Jayavarman IV. in 928 decided not to reside in Angkor but to return to his stronghold Koh Ker, where he carried on with his building programme. This way Koh Ker (Chok Gargyar) replaced Angkor (Yashodharapura) as Khmer capital officially. Inscriptional evidence for Koh Ker being the the capital was found also outside Koh Ker, namely in Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampong Cham and even in Takeo province in the south. At least ten thousand inhabitants lived in the new capital.
The reasons for this shift of the capital are not completely clarified. However, Koh Ker had already begun to be an imperial project and although it is situated in a relatively poor and inhospitable region of Cambodia, it is not far from hills rich in iron and copper ores, and even gold. Furthermore, Koh Ker was located at the Khmer empire’s main road from Angkor via Bang Melea to Preah Vihear and extending to Wat Phu in present-day southern Laos and finally to the coast of central Vietnam.
The inscriptions of Jayavarman IV in Koh Ker show that the temples of that city were built between 921 and 937, but that most donations were made from about 928 to 932, as several Khmer inscriptions from this period record donations chiefly of land and slaves to the the Devaraja. The dimensions of the new imperial state temple and the proliferation of smaller temples in an area of some 35 square kilometres are proof of the new capital’s wealth. As already mentioned, almost all of them are from the reign of Jayavarman IV, only additions to the temples and nearby shrines were afterwards made by the Angkor kings Rajendravarman II (944-968) and Jayavarman V (968-1000), one last sanctuary was the hospital chapel of Prasat Andong Kuk built by Jayavarman VII in the late 13th century. Statues in the style of Koh Ker are noteworthy for their three-dimensional plasticity and celebrated for their vividness and expressiveness.
Hindu temple town Koh Ker
All the monuments of Koh Ker were dedicated to Hindu gods, mainly Shiva but not for the Buddha though he was held in high esteem already during early periods of Khmer history. Apart from Shiva, to whom most temples were dedicated, Jayavarman IV also erected sanctuaries for other Hindu deities. Door inscriptions of Prasat Chen report that Jayavarman IV consecrated that sanctuary to Shripati (Vishnu). Inscriptions at the door pillars of Prasat Banteay Pir Chan record that Jayavarman IV consecrated this temple to Prajapatishvara (Brahma) in 937, and that several donations were made to it. This is remarkable, because there were no other temples in Khmer history dedicated solely to Brahma. Prasat Bak was apparently dedicated to the worship of Ganesha.
The influence of Jayavarman IV may well have extended into what is now northeastern Thailand where several temples in the Koh Ker style have survived.
The Koh Ker ruler Jayavarman IV. received the posthumous name of Pramashivapada. A slab inscription found at Prasat Bayang praises Jayavarman IV and Harshavarman. It is dated 941, which seems to indicate that Harshavarman II was on the throne on that date, or some short time before that date. Harshavarman II was not his father’s designated heir, as an inscription relates that he “attained kingship with the help of a friend and that of his two arms”. This succession seems to have been contested, during his short reign the king was embroiled in continual struggles and one of his generals had to wage war on the town of Indrapura, which had been the first capital of the Khmer empire’s founder, Jayavarman II. After only three years Harshavarman II mysteriously disappeared, probably he met a violent end. Later inscriptions refer to him by the posthumous name of Brahmaloka. No architectural achievements are attributed to the short reign of Harshavarman II.
The above-mentioned friend supporting Harshavarman’s claim to the throne, at least in the beginning, was probably his cousin who was the ruler of Bhavapura (in the area of Sambor Prei Kuk) and whose mother, Mahendradevi, was an elder sister of Harshavarman’s mother, Jayadevi, and of Angkor’s founder Yashovarman I. Only a few years later on this cousin became King Rajendravarman II, who shifted the capital back to Angkor. Again, a matrilineal lineage returned to the forefront, and it seems to have been legitimate and undisputed, though not completely reputable and unequivocal. This is indicated by the court poets, as they emphasise that Rajendravarman was even greater than his predecessors. Such derogatory comparisons are extremely rare in Kmer inscriptions and seems to compensate some doubts. Another form of such compensation was the building programme of Rajendravarman, the renewer of Angkors supremacy, now lasting for centuries.
Koh Ker explorers
The first French explorers of the Prasat Thom ruins of Koh Ker were Lunet de Lajonquière and Étienne Aymonier. In the 1880s members of a French expedition removed many works of sculptural art from Koh Ker to the Musée Guimet in Paris, some say, it was robbery, others, it was safeguarding, maybe both is true.
At the beginning of the 20th century art historians identified a distinct style of Koh Ker. The renownd scholar for Indochina studies Georges Coedès was able to concluded from inscriptions that Koh Ker had been the capital of the Khmer empire under the reign of Jayavarman IV and Harshavarman II. French researchers in the 1930s counted fifty sanctuaries distributed over an area of 3.500 hectares (8,649 acres). The archaeologist Henry Parmentier, who earlier on had documented Vietnam’s Cham temples and supported the preservation of Angkor Wat, created informative drawings in Koh Ker.
After NASA satellite research results had been published, the protected area of Koh Ker was extended to 80 square kilometres in 2004. More than 180 monuments are known today, but many of them not yet explored on the ground.
Cambodia's history in general can be studied on Siem Reap travel agency website.
Religion in the Koh Ker period
The foundations and donations during the reign of Koh-Ker-King Jayavarman IV include all the gods of the Brahmanic trinity, even Brahma, to whom no temples are dedicated in other Khmer towns. The preferred god of this king was Shiva, but this applies equally to his predecessors and successors in Angkor throughout the 10th and 11th centuries.
The Devaraja symbol which was established at Prasat Thom was probably larger than any which preceded it and was placed on a higher pyramid. The king boasts of it in three inscriptions. Some deities or vocables were introduced at this time. The Devaraja was established at Prasat Thom in 921 under the vocable of Tribhuvaneshvara. The temple of Prasat Krachap was dedicated to Tribhuvanadeva in 928. The inscription of Prasat Kravan mentions the erection of the gods Tribhuvanesvami and Trailokyanatha near Angkor in 921, while the inscription of Chong Ang (Jen Ong), 922, mentions the erection of Tribhuvanakanatha.
Other Lingas were established - one (at Prasat Damrei) in honour of a deceased elder brother; one (Prasat Andong) in honour of several kings. These are two of the monuments which mention the erection of the Devaraja. The third (Baksei Chamkrong) was dedicated to the worship of ancestors. Maybe, this was the purpose of Prasat Andong as well.
Brahma-temple Prasat Banteay Pee Chean in Koh Ker
Koh Ker in north-western Cambodia
Weblinks: recommended external sources about Koh Ker
In 928 Koh Ker instead of Angkor became the capital of the Khmer empire, during the reign of King Jayavarman IV and his son. The landmark of Koh Ker is the perfect step pyramid belonging to the vast complex of King Jayavarman's state temple Prasat Thom. Altogether, ruins of at least 180 temples are scattered throughout an area of more than 80 square kilometres. Among temple towns of this size, Koh Ker clearly is the only one in the entire world which, until now, remains untouristed. To learn more about Koh Ker's attractions, please visit our Koh Ker page.
Preah Vihear is spectacularly situated on the highest cliff of Cambodia, in the Dangrek hills close to the Thai border. Every visitor is overwhelmed by the beauty of this unique Khmer temple. Most buildings are Gopuram gates arranged along a procession alley. The rearmost complex, close to the cliff, includes several courtyards. Preah Vihear is beautifully decorated with carvings from various style periods. The best way to visit Preah Vihear is a 2-days trip including sightseeing in Koh Ker on the first day, with an overnight stay in Srah Em. For details, please study our Khmer temple tour proposals.
Banteay Chhmar is unkown, but really very, very huge. The main temple is 1.9 km long and 1.7 km wide. You will not find a single complex of temple ruins of this size outside Cambodia. Banteay Chhmar was built by Jayavarman VII, the founder of Angkor Thom. There are many similarities with Angkor Thom, for example face tower temples and long galleries with historical carvings. Off the beaten track, the nearby village offers only very simple accommodation. Full day excursions from Siem Reap and back are possible, too. More information can be found on my Khmer temple towns page.
Prasat Bakan is the local name for Preah Khan Kampong Svay in Preah Vihear Province. The outer embankments are 5 km long and 5 km wide, making this the vastest temple compound in the entire world. But the buildings are smaller and more dilapidated than Angkor Wat, of course. Among the five largest Khmer temple towns Prasat Bakan is the one which, until now, is most isolated and rarely visited, but a new road from Angkor is under construction. For details, how to visit this remote temple, please feel free to contact and ask me.
Sambor Prei Kuk is the earliest temple town with many groups of stone or brick buildings in Southeast Asia. Most of the structures are from the seventh century, hundreds of years earlier than Angkor Wat and other classic Khmer monuments. There are peculiar characteristics that make Sambor Prei Kuk's temples unique and others that shaped the styles of Angkor. A special attraction are three fairytale jungletemples completely strangled by tree roots. Find their names and locations on one of the best Cambodia websites of a local travel agency offering a separate page about Sambor Prei Kuk.
Beng Mealea (also transcribed Bang Melea) is famous as a large Khmer temple which is completely overgrown. In size and style Beng Mealea is similar to Angkor Wat. The trees inside the temple are less big, but there are many more in Beng Melea than in Angkor's famous jungletemple Ta Prohm. Beng Mealea is reachable on a half day excursion from Siem Reap. I can even organize it as a cheap Tuktuk tour. For details study the Bang Melea page on my Angkor temples website and for price offers please contact me.
Banteay Srei, besides Angkor Wat, Bayon in Angkor Thom and jungletemple Ta Prohm, is one of the 4 must-sees for every tourist coming to Siem Reap. Banteay Srei is small, but of exceptional beauty, due to its decoration. It is located a little bit far outside Angkor. I can offer cheap half-day excursions by Tuktuk or comfortable taxi tours or full-day excursions including Phnom Kulen, or even breaks at Banteay Srei on longer round trips. More information about my offers and ambitions can be found on the about-me page.
Doubtless, Angkor is the most exciting temple town in the world. The numbers of Khmer temples and the sizes of these historical monuments are record-breaking, the beauty of the ornamentation and the scenic setting are breathtaking. As a driver, whose main source of income is arranging daytrips to Angkor, I offer comprehensive information about more than 80 monuments in Angkor and neighbouring Roluos on my separate website called Angkor-Temples.
Phnom Da is much smaller than the other temple towns and complexes mentioned above and in contrast to them it is not located in the north-western part of Cambodia, but at the south-eastern border. It is mentioned in this list simply because it is the temple hill at my hometown.
Phnom Da is the name ot the first Khmer style in sculptural art, because this hill and the surrounding areas of Angkor Borei are the archaeological sites where most of the early works of Khmer art were found. Besides Oc Eo, which is situated in today's Vietnam, Angkor Borei and Phnom Da were core areas of the Funan civilization, which is of utmost significance for the cultural development of Southeast Asia.
There are no buildings left from the Funan period, as they were made of perishable materials such as wood. The two ancient temples on Phnom Da are from later eras called Chenla and Angkor. However, the Ashram Maha Rosei is considered to be the oldest stone monument in Cambodia. It's small but well worth a visit.